Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

For over a century, as long as my favorite medium has been around, stories about men have taken center stage. Their lived experiences have been given a heightened sense of importance. Their relationship to their world, their work, their fellow men, their love interests. Stories about women have made an appearance, too, but it’s astounding that all these years into my journey through film, it still takes me by surprise when I notice that there have been no men on-screen for the majority of the story. It has taken years of feminist critics and raising awareness about the bechdel test to force society to reckon with the absence of women.

I love watching old movies and learning about the history of cinema. It’s such a slap in the face, though, when I am reminded time-and-time again the extent to which it was men’s stories that were used as a proxy for the entire human experience. Portrait of a Lady on Fire puts the female experience center-stage. Not just in its love story between two female protagonists, but also in explaining their hopes and fears about marriage, the ways in which men have prevented female artists from advancing in their careers, and how women have been kept in the dark regarding how their own bodies work. The full emotional range of the lived experiences of women was on display. Céline Sciamma is unapologetic regarding placing women and queer characters at the center of her works, and she is my heroine for that.

There are three things that will stay with me in particular, beyond the stolen glances and the silent companionship:

Sophie’s storyline was dealt with with so much care and love. From Marianne and Héloïse helping her perform ancient rituals believed to be helpful, to the scene in which Sophie has her abortion. The child is on the bed, holding Sophie’s hand as Sophia makes the decision of when it is right for her to have a child. She is not painted as cold for making the decision that she is making. But rather as someone who is exercising control over the one aspect of her life she can, being a working-class young woman over two centuries ago.

Marianne and Héloïse spend such a brief time together, and yet they have studied each other so intently, they can illuminate the small gestures with such care and love. I liked the way in which Marianne described Héloïse’s mannerisms. Why wouldn’t she know these small details? As the painter, at first tasked with painting the portrait of a woman who will not pose, she had to study her every facial expression. But when Héloïse turned these observations on Marianne, I was so incredibly touched. This wasn’t just an artist studying her subject carefully, but the memorization of small actions of someone you love.

Finally, page 28 in the painting at the end destroyed me. Everything related to page 28, really. From Marianne lending her talent to memorializing her own image for the woman she loves, to the significance of that moment for Héloïse all these years later. The fact that the page featured prominently in her portrait conveys that her time with Marianne represents an inseparable part of her. This week together is who she is.

I just love stories about women, and about women who love women. I love female artists who lend their talent to tell these stories. And please world, keep throwing money at Sciamma and give her the artistic freedom to tell whatever story she wants to tell. She is the filmmaker we need right now.